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In 2016, Camae Ayewa released Fetish Bones. Her debut album is Moor Mother, a shockwave of noise, rap, jazz, and thunderous spoken word. The project introduced Moor Mother as an experimental musician, who is perpetually tapped into some dark and essential history, with ramifications beyond the borders of the United States. Since then, she's become an underground ambassador for a righteous rage that flattens space-time.
Last week Moor Mother released her new album, Black Encyclopedia of the Air. In the music, Moor Mother takes the listener into the eye of the storm, a relativity calm location in her catalog, where smooth lounge ready loops lay underneath her stark poetry. It's full of features from artists like Pink Siifu, Brother May, and Black Quantum Futurism, Moor Mother's multidisciplinary collective with Rasheedah Phillips. But as is always the case with Moor Mothers collaborations, she's the undisputed guiding force, a mystic and a student with centuries of wisdom, both hard won and brutally lost, to guide her. Earlier this week, the FADER's Jordan Darville spoke with Moor Mother about paying tribute to people's stories through music, a new album that she promises will be even more accessible, and have favorite song on Kanye West's Donda.
The FADER: Are you still living in Northern Philadelphia?
Moor Mother: No, I'm bi-coastal, but I'm in California now.
I asked because I was wondering if living there inspired your music. I know it's got a significant jazz history with John Coltrane and Sun Ra. So I was wondering if you had any memories of that musical history influencing your work?
It helped me practice my craft. I had an event called Rockers that was on for over a decade. That was a festival and a monthly event. So that's my family right there, all the Rockers crew.
Are there any specific events that you hosted that really stand out in your mind?
Yeah. I mean, just being able to throw your own event and festival outside of industry, I don't even think that's even heard of to be more longer than a decade. There was the event called Afro Punk, it was like a picnic and stuff. And that's the only thing that I can think of. But that went corporate really fast. It's the only thing I can think of that went on as long as the event I did. So it's pretty historical, outside of industry, remaining in the underground. Things coming up in the underground in this decade really doesn't last.
Why do you think that is?
Well, because you need money to learn the skill. To do something without money is very hard, so most people cash out. I never cashed out. I was broke when I finished it. I was more burnt out than cashing out. But that experience really was everything. Booking, artists relations, running a show, that's a lot. Usually you have a whole staff of people doing that. For me, it was only two of us, and then we had a host. So it wasn't like it was this kind of committee or anything. I created this event just so my own band could get played. And then it just snowballed to all these other people needing support.
Was putting on that festival one of the major sparks that really inspired your love of collaboration?
Collaboration to me, is just community. I love being a solo artist, and I love to really dwell in that. Of course, I've always been into multiple genres. Like right now, I'd like to create some small chamber orchestra, but they would play my music. I'm more into that now trying to create some sort of small orchestra, as far as collaboration. But collaboration to me is community, and it's very accidental. You're just hanging out with your friend. Your friends are talented. It's all about seeing how talented your community is. Then collaboration is very easy. So it's not like I'm out here seeking to collaborate with people, it's just how it happens through community.
So tell me about the writing process and the intentions that you set behind this new body of work.
I was working on two albums at once. The album I was working on is called Jazz Codes, that will be out next year. And this one, sometimes you get a lot of different beats that may not fit the album that you're working on, but you still love them. So it was kind of like this thing I did on the side for fun while I was working on this pretty intense record that involved a lot of different people and, situations. That album of course took a very long time to finish. So this was something that I can just do and just have something fun to record in the studio while waiting.
And also it was very healing to have something that I can just do for fun. So it wasn't really a writing process for this album, to be honest. It was just kind of taking it track by track, and then it was like, "Oh wow, this has come together to be something." And just getting excited about something being almost finished. So, then it's about rounding the album out with the first song and the last two, just to put a little bit of where I'm usually coming from because this album is totally different. So I put those three tracks there to keep the same feeling just in case people wonder what's up.
I was going to say those last two songs, they are more reminiscent of some of your earlier work and especially "Fetish Bones." But yes, this new album it's... I feel like 'sedate' is the wrong word, but there's definitely a new groove there.
Me and Olof (Melander) have done a bunch of stuff last year that was hinting at this, but it was definitely a little bit more avant-garde than this is. And the next one is even more accessible, if you can even believe that. And then after the next one, I'm back to more avant-garde work. So this is kind of like this nice ride to experience me, with this album and the next album. So yeah, I just wanted to make something really accessible. I constantly care about the message that I'm trying to get across. I'm always trying to present new type of vantage points for people to enter my work.
What was it like putting yourself in that head space of creating something more accessible? I know for a lot of artists, they might consider that dicey territory in terms of perhaps compromising their vision, but this record it doesn't feel like you did that at all.
No, and you'll definitely see with the next record. It was grooves that I liked. I mean, it all started with my love for jazz. I wrote a poetry book that I'm looking for a publisher for right now, called Jazz Codes, the same name of the album. All I really wanted was just a couple of jazz loops to add to what I'm already doing, and that just turned into two albums to be honest. So it was really never a plan, I was just trying to read some poetry that I'm honoring certain jazz legends.
So that's really what I wanted to do. You know how music is, it turns into more than you expect, and lights you up in different ways. Yeah, it wasn't scary, it's my words. It's only scary if it's someone else's words. If someone's like, "Nah, say this." then I'm like, "Yikes, what?" So, as long as it's my words, it's fine. I'm hinting at singing a bit, so the next record I'm singing a lot more. I got a new... This kind of hardware synthesizer that manipulates voice. So I was using that a lot just having fun, so I just wanted to add a little bit of that kind of element.
I've always wondered what your vocal inspirations... Not necessarily in lyrical content, but the sonic quality of their voice. Musicians or singers that you really admire the sonic quality of their voice because you've got such a distinctive one yourself.
My favorite singers are Aretha Franklin and Patti Labelle. I can never sing like them, so that's why I never tried to sing before. Because I love so much soul, Luther Vandross and things like that, I felt like why not? And every time I go to a concert to hear someone sing... Last night, I saw Moses (Sumney), and I'm like, "Oh, I should just be singing more. I don't even know what I'm worried about." I definitely want to sing, scream, poetry. I just want to use my vocals as an instrument, that's what it is. I want to be able to not limit myself, ever.
You've spoken before quite a bit about the importance of younger musicians, new musicians, learning from the past and looking deeply at the intentions of great artists behind their superficial presentations. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit more about some of the elders who have been formative to your own artistic development, and whether or not you feel like you take different lessons from these inspirations, than other people do.
I love people's stories of people's lives. That's always been an inspiration all the time for me. I listened to music, but not so much. I'm kind of like, listen to the same song over and over again, and then get a new song. I'm that kind of music listener, but working with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, touring with them, especially a show we did in Australia, working with Nicole Mitchell. These people I don't see as elders, I see as more of my colleagues. Yeah, those two were very inspirational to me, and Roscoe Mitchell.
What are some of the songs you're listening over and over to?
That's too embarrassing. It's so embarrassing to say. But I do like this song on Donda called, "Remote Control." It's so light and breezy. I thought it was a very good performance from Young Thug.
I wanted to talk a little bit about your views on time-traveling. I wondered if you thought sampling itself was a form of time travel?
Oh, I've said this many times, of course. Sampling is very powerful. I mean, that's all we're doing is sampling, in real time. So why wouldn't we reach further from the past? We're just reinventing or remixing what has been done. It's good to reach far back. I don't really like to be... That word influence is really interesting. I'm not listening to other people's music to come up with ideas for myself. I'm more just respectful for their life, and trying to do whatever I can to either break the cycle or expand the work that they've done. Break the cycle, meaning like what happened to Nina Simone, what happened to Billie Holiday? What happened to any woman in blues? And how come we know so few? That's what I'm trying to break. But it's hard because popular music always remains supreme because it makes the most money.
How would you describe your relationship to popular music as an artist and a listener?
People are very surprised at the stuff that I don't even know, or listen to. I like more underground music, I guess, stuff that's not so mainstream. I love Erykah Badu, to me that's mainstream, I guess, but very soul, and very rooted in culture. I mean, I try to listen to skim through all the new music. But no, I like everyone, and I encourage everyone. I respect everyone as a musician, and I love people that are just putting emotion on tracks. I love people to be as genuine as themselves as they can be within the industry. I always admire that.
Something that I've noticed about the way that you speak in interviews. When you talk about your work in the community, it reminds me of the very beginnings of hip hop in the Bronx, when it was very community-based and people were sharing their ideas, there was a lot of teaching. So it's very interesting to see that same spirit, but in the context of Afrofuturism.
Oh yeah. I mean, early hip hop inspired me so much because I also grew up listening to punk rock in an all Black community. So when I can see that hip-hoppers were also hanging out with the punks and just trying to create a broader sense of community, that was the open door for me to do my thing. It was like, this history does exist. It's not weird that you like punk rock, and there's a meaning to this. I mean, there's a history to this. So that was very affirming.
Yeah, I know you're a student of history. I was also wondering if your journeys in that regard, if you came across any new histories and histories that are new to you rather that really informed your new album?
Well, not really. Like I said, I was coming from jazz histories because I'm making two albums at once. So in my mind and my heart, it's the history of jazz and all the people that make it. Also, blues. When I say jazz, I also talk about the blues. They're the same, I don't separate that. So a lot of blues musicians. And that's going to be after I've released all these albums I made, I'm going to really get into some blues. So that's the journey right there, and I'm so ready. But because I make so many albums and I like to do this two albums at once thing, it's really messing me up. Because I got to wait for it to come out, but I'm steady doing other stuff.
What really invigorates you about making two albums at once?
Something on the side to have fun. So, it's just like when you have homework and you got math homework, and it's a bit hard, but then you got some cool art project that you get to do. It's kind of like going back between both of those. Like the cool art project and then the hard math homework, that's kind of how it feels for me, unless it's easy. I like things to be easy. I like to be in full creative mode. I don't really like any type of hardships, or waiting or anything like that. I guess I'm a kind of a brat in that way, but I just like creating. I don't even like sending the files. You know what I mean? I'm just like, "What? Send files? I want to make another album. What is file sending?"
So now I know I got to get my own engineer one day. I really don't like the mundane. But I'm getting better at that because now I'm a professor. So now it's like turning this mundane into creativity. And I think I've been pretty successful so far, like one kid said after class, "That was really fun." So that made me feel really good because I'm someone that don't even like compliments. So when I heard that, I was like, "Yes." And then another kid emailed me and said our conversation was super inspiring. So that's kind of how I want to do it. Like, yeah, we're not creating an album together, but we are creating ideas. And I love that.
Yeah. Talk to me a little bit more about the particulars of the curriculum you've set up. As you mentioned this fall, or perhaps even right now, you're an assistant professor at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music.
Yes. And I'm teaching composition two, the two means sophomore. It's actually a class I'm taking over from another great artist named Ted Hearne. And then hopefully after this year, I'll be creating my own class, which I'm going to come out with a bang for that. But for right now, just teaching composition. I mean, I told the students, the first day, "My expertise is feeling, sensitivities." Because I'm a poet, so that's my main thing, is to feel what other people are going through, the world not just my neighborhood. So that's why I always say... People that ask about Philadelphia, like, "No, I'm a world musician." I'm about to change my name to world musician, so people can stop boxing me in these kinds of places because these are world problems, these are not isolated problems that people are going through. And that's why I'm able to perform in so many places because I realize this.
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the sense of feeling?
No, because that's my job. Sometimes, I wish I would write more. Because every time I write it's a great benefit to me. The more I write, the more successful I am, which is kind of crazy. But, successful in my own heart and my work. I got to just write more.
You're already pretty prolific as an artist.
Yeah, but I'm not writing enough. That's why I'm trying to get a book deal. It's been so hard. Yeah, hopefully someone out there listening wants to offer me a book deal. And like I said, the new poetry I wrote is absolutely amazing. You hear two poems on the album. I love poetry. Every day I'm learning more, and that's the most important aspect of my work. At first, I thought it was all the cool synthesizers and stuff like that, but actually it's the poetry.
Are there any newer poets that you're reading that really struck you as essential new voices?
I like Imani Robinson, who I had on Brass, the album I did with Billy Woods, this hip hop album I had. And I like Joy Kemet, who I've worked with a lot in the past. I love Sonia Sanchez, and Amiri Baraka, and Tony Morrison, and Ntozake Shange.
Lastly, do you consider your music to be a counterweight to anything? Like, do you feel like your creative output, your music is balancing out something else that's out there in the world, whether it's another creative work or another political force?
Not really, like I said, I tend to be in my own world as much as possible. So I'm just trying to do things from my heart. I don't really know what else other people are doing. One thing that is inspiring, is just being a conductor. I've told my students that musicians are conductors of human emotion. So it's my job to try to pull things out of people. But definitely standing on the shoulders of everyone before me.
Okay. I think that'll do it. Moor Mother, thank you very much for joining us today.
Thank you so much. Peace to the world. Love you all. And I appreciate your time.